Evolutionary Psychology:
 A Paradigm to Unite the Field of Psychology

Vanessa Young
Camosun College


Despite  being a fairly new discipline, evolutionary psychology has undeniably made a large, and lasting impact within the field of psychology. It wasn’t until the mid 1970s that scholars began to apply an updated Darwinian theory to the human species (Wright, 1994), however, Darwin had predicted the impact of his ideas on the field of psychology long before this time. It was at the end of his definitive work “The Origin of Species” that Darwin suggested the future of the study of psychology would be “based on a new foundation” (Wright, 1994, p. 3). Indeed, according to Kuhn’s “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, this new theory shook the foundation of science resulting in a paradigm shift as young evolutionary scholars began to question the settled worldview, the Standard Social Science Model, of their elders. The emergence of evolutionary psychology as a way of thinking can be explained in terms of Kuhn’s (1963) paradigms. By examining the disciplinary matrix, shared exemplars and the impact of evolutionary psychology on the field of psychology as a whole, it is possible to better understand what makes evolutionary psychology a good paradigm and why there are still some that criticize it.

            As mentioned above, it wasn’t until the 1970s that scholars connected a new version of Darwin’s theory to Homo sapiens. While it is Darwin’s theory that is most often mentioned in evolutionary psychology, it is important to remember that Darwin did not actually invent the concept of evolution. One of the most influential of pre-Darwinian evolutionists was Jean Baptiste Lamarck. Although Lamarck’s theory was correct in that he believed different environments required different adaptations and these adaptations were related to animal behavior, he incorrectly concluded that organisms had the will to change and that they could pass these traits on to their offspring (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002). Another notable contributor to the evolutionary theory was Gregor Mendel. From his experiments with pea plants, Mendel went on to discover that heredity is particular and that dominant traits are expressed. Eventually, this new field of genetics and Darwin’s idea of evolution were merged to become a common view (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002). According to Wright (1994), it was in the mid 1960s when biologists began to extend Darwin’s theory of natural selection and thus provided insight into the social behavior of animals. At first, these new ideas about the social behavior of animals, such as the hidden logic of courtship among species of birds, were confidently expressed. However, in the 1960s  evolutionary theory and its connection with social behaviors in humans was hardly mentioned.The 1970s ushered in a different way of viewing human behavior, which resulted in a paradigm shift.  Before the emergence of evolutionary psychology, many scientists followed the Standard Social Science Model. This model views human nature as something that barely exists and “doesn’t much matter” (Wright, 1994, p. 6). This model also includes the belief that infants were born “blank slates” (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002, p.65) and that main differences in human behavior are due to culture. The 1980s saw a rebellion from the Standard Social Science Model, and young evolutionary scholars began to challenge this view of their elders. According to Kuhn (1963), scientific revolutions lead to new views, and once familiar objects are now seen in a different light. Indeed, the emergence of evolutionary psychology resulted in a new way of thinking within the discipline of psychology.  

            Kuhn (1963) stated that every paradigm has a disciplinary matrix, which he defined as a set of underlying assumptions. Bjorklund and Pellegrini (2002) describe the basic principles of Darwin’s theory of evolution as: a) many more members of generations are born than will survive, b) all members have different combinations of inherited traits, c) this variation is heritable and d) characteristics that result in an individual surviving and reproducing tend to be selected and passed down. These beliefs, like most assumptions in a disciplinary matrix, are not subject to empirical testing. Another basic tenet of evolutionary psychology is that “psychological adaptations evolved to solve adaptive problems [that] our hominid ancestors faced” (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, 2002, p. 21). For example, a trait such as the ability of children to understand language at a young age may have been favorable in solving communication problems among groups. By means of these psychological adaptations, which Cosmides and Tooby (1992) describe as cognitive-level information-processing mechanisms, children may have been more likely to survive and reproduce, passing on this favorable trait to their offspring. Another assumption of evolutionary psychology is that some of these information-processing mechanisms are domain specific. Rather than general intelligence, for example, these domain-specific mechanisms involve precise cognitive operations such as face recognition. This assumption is demonstrated effectively by Pinker (1997), as quoted by Bjorklund & Pellegrini (2002):

The mind is organized into modules or mental organs, each with a specialized design that makes it an expert in one area of interaction with the world….specified by our genetic program…[and] shaped by natural selection to solve problems of the hunting and gathering life led by our ancestors in the most of our evolutionary history. (p. 18-19)

 

These underlying assumptions, together with models of good research, come together as the foundations of a paradigm, and it is through the disciplinary matrix that the base of the paradigm is formed.

            These models of good research are described by Kuhn (1963) as shared exemplars. These shared exemplars are examples of good theories, and are used in part to teach students to “see” the world through their paradigm’s perspective. In many research programs, the goal of evolutionary psychology is to treat human studies as just the ordinary pursuit of animal behavior. An example of a good experiment, then, would be one described by Daly and Wilson (1998), in which current work on sexual selections and sex differences have taken theories from the studies of other animals, and applied them directly to the study of humans with hardly any modification. Another example of a shared exemplar in evolutionary psychology would be the theory that the brain still possesses psychological mechanisms that solved problems our ancestors faced, although everyday life has changed much since our ancestors, especially in the information age. This theory, demonstrated in an example of a research study, would be the increasing rate of ADHD diagnosed in school-aged boys today. Is ADHD steadily becoming more prevalent? Evolutionary psychologists would argue that seat work and extended periods of focused attention are “unnatural” for children, and for our ancestors it was beneficial for boys to be active (Bjorklund & Pellegrini, p. 18). It is through the learning of shared exemplars, along with uniting the various fields of psychology, which arguably makes evolutionary psychology a good paradigm.

            According to Buss (1995), psychological science is “currently in disarray” (p. 1). With isolated findings and no theory about what certain parts of the mind are “designed” to do, Buss believes that a good paradigm is missing in the field of psychology. Indeed, the field of psychology is characterized by many sub disciplines, such as developmental, cognitive, social, sexual and biological psychology. All of these key fields have limited boundaries and do not successfully connect with one another. Evolutionary psychology, Buss (1995) believes, is the tool that will help  psychology to emerge out of its “fragmented state” of many isolated branches (p. 1).  According to Kuhn (1963), a sound paradigm organizes our ideas or ways of thinking about the world, which evolutionary psychology does through explaining human nature in terms of evolution and adaptations. Daly and Wilson (1998) argue that evolution is already the foundation for modern biology, and therefore should be the foundation for modern psychology as well. Also, it is through the foundations and underlying assumptions of evolutionary psychology that scientists have made great progress in animal research and in applying knowledge learned from these models to human behaviors. Through the Darwinian belief that everything evolved from a common ancestor, scientists have applied animal studies, such as research on giant squid neurons, to similar human structures. It is through the paradigm of evolutionary psychology, Buss (1995) argues, that advances have been made in the field of psychology and the “disciplinary boundaries can be descended” (p. 1). However, this idea is not without its criticisms.

            Some scholars have argued against the idea of evolutionary psychology being a good paradigm. Buss (1995) notes critics that have claimed evolutionary psychology does not explain all human behaviors, such as the use of birth control and children’s love of their father. According to evolutionary beliefs, as a species we should feel the need to reproduce, and fathers play little role in their offspring’s lives in many species. However, evolutionary psychology is still a new paradigm and “most psychological solutions [remain] undiscovered” (Buss, 1995, p. 27). As Kuhn (1963) explains, there are often problems that arise and need to be solved during the “normal science” phase of a paradigm. The abuse of the evolutionary theory through eugenics is also criticized. However, it can be argued that major cases of negative eugenics, such as Hitler’s ethnic cleansing, occurred before the major onset of evolutionary psychology as a paradigm. While the abuse of eugenics is still a realistic problem today, the further education of evolutionary psychology may help reduce this problem.

            Overall, it is clear to see that evolutionary psychology is still a relatively new field, although not without its followers or critics. Darwin’s work on expression of emotions was, according to Daly and Wilson (1998), one of the first major works of modern psychology, and Darwin’s ideas are still influencing the discipline of psychology today. Although evolutionary psychology still has its limitations and downfalls, it is important to remember that paradigms, like normal science, do not have all the answers and cannot explain all the facts (Kuhn, 1963). In the meantime, evolutionary psychology serves as an effective paradigm in uniting the different key branches of psychology, and through further research may deepen our previous understanding of human nature.


 

References

 

Barkow, J.H., Cosmides, L. & Tooby, J. (1992). The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture. Oxford University Press: New York.

Bjorklund, D.F., & Pellegrini, A.D. (2002). The origins of human nature: Evolutionary developmental psychology. American Psychological Association: Washington.

Buss, D.M. (1995). Evolutionary psychology: A new paradigm for psychological science. Psychological Inquiry, 6, 1-30.

Daly, M., & Wilson, M.I. (1998). Human evolutionary psychology and animal behavior. Animal Behavior, 57, 509-519.

Kuhn, T. (1963). The structure of scientific revolutions. In G.E. Kessler (2004). Voices of wisdom. Wadsworth/Thompson Learning: Belmont.

Wright, R. (1994). The moral animal: The way we are the way we are: The new science of evolutionary psychology. Vintage Books: New York.